Every day at dawn, Vicente Ramirez stands on a West Los Angeles street corner, waiting for work.
The Guatemalan house painter says he'd love to go out and find a job, but as an undocumented immigrant, he's prohibited from getting a driver's license - and he can't get all his paint rollers and cans around town without a car.
"I am afraid to drive without a license because I will be stopped by the police," he says, adding, "I fear for my wife who works late at night and must take public transportation."
Mr. Ramirez and thousands of illegal immigrants here are at the heart of a debate surrounding a bill that would allow them to apply for driver's licenses without proof of legal residency.
On the surface, the issue is one of principle versus practicality: Does the benefit of making life less convenient for illegals outweigh the danger of encouraging them to drive without licenses or insurance?
But underneath is the more fundamental question of how tough the state should be in dealing with its burgeoning illegal immigrant population. In recent years, California has taken a hard line: A 1994 ballot initiative barred them from public benefits and another last year ended bilingual education.
The debate over drivers' licenses represents the latest test of sentiment in the state - and it is being closely watched across the country. A move here could lead to similar legislation in other states.
Following a Utah law passed in May - which eliminated the requirement of a Social Security card as a prerequisite for a Utah driver's license - the California law would similarly relax requirements for first-time applicants. The goal: to make streets safer for all motorists.
"The legal residency rule has clogged the roads with dangerous, unlicensed drivers who cannot get licenses and thus cannot legally obtain automobile insurance," says Gilbert Cedillo, a Democratic assemblyman from Los Angeles who is sponsoring the bill. The state department of insurance estimates that 23 percent of cars are uninsured, a figure that hits 40 percent in immigrant communities.
"We have heard for two decades and with good argument that the primary role of government is to protect its constituents," he says. "This is primarily aimed at that."
The California Assembly has already approved the bill, and the Senate will take it up next month. It would repeal a rule implemented in 1994, approved amid the groundswell of anti-immigration sentiment, and return to the state requirements that existed for decades.
But some senators are already deriding the bill, saying it paves the way for illegal immigrants to remain in the country and opens the border to more.
"This bill has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with welcoming illegal immigration," says Sen. Richard Mountjoy, a Republican who co-wrote Proposition 187, which voters passed in 1994 to deny services to illegal immigrants. Currently, it remains mired in the courts.
He says obtaining a California license would allow illegals to crisscross the border with impunity because they are accepted virtually as passports by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
"If someone is here illegally, they have broken the law and ought to go home," says Senator Mountjoy. "We should not be making it easier for people who shouldn't be here to remain in the country."
Part of the controversy is being generated by the sheer numbers of those affected - about 2 million who are currently in the state illegally.
Recognizing the overall contribution of such workers - who staff restaurants, hotels, in addition to farms, and dozens of low-wage jobs - the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and County Economic Development Corporation are backing the measure. Several insurance associations and law enforcement agencies are also behind it.
"It's a valid safety issue," says Ted Hunt, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents 10,000 officers. "If it is passed in California, it will be looked at seriously by other states."
Other officials say the current law has stressed the state department of motor vehicles by making them verify immigration status. It has also, they say, created a black market in illegal licenses.
Narrowly defeated in a 6-to-6 Senate committee vote this month, the bill will be reintroduced next month with less scope, Assemblyman Cedillo says. Amendments to current language will limit those affected by the bill to illegal immigrants who have applied for legal status through the INS.
Such amendments will still exclude thousands of illegal immigrants but will include Guatemalan painter Ramirez. Under current law, he has applied for legal status through the US Department of Labor, sponsored by employers.
"It's good that a vast number of these people will still have a chance to get licenses," says Victor Narro, whose Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles is spearheading support for the Cedillo's new bill. "We would hope that all immigrants working in the US would be treated the same," he says. "Whoever contributes to the economy here ought to be able to get around without fear of being stopped by police."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society